The Young Urban Builders, one of Athens Land Trust’s Youth Development programs, visited a Habitat for Humanity job site on February 18th, 2022 for their Build with Strength event to learn about building residential structures with concrete. The YUB observed that houses built with insulating concrete forms (ICFs) can look just like any other home, but they are stronger, more energy-efficient, and projected to last much longer than traditional builds.
The Young Urban Builders perform owner-occupied rehabilitation in the West Broad neighborhood in Athens, and this amazing learning opportunity gave them an excellent insight into modern construction methods that will aid them in their community projects and neighborhood revitalization efforts!
It’s been a while since we’ve reported on the development of the West Broad Community Campus. And now we’ve got exciting news to share about it. So, we decided this was a good time for updates about — and an overview of — one of our community collaborations that has been years in the making.
Architects have been selected
First, the news: in mid-November 2021 a team of architects was selected to help campus stakeholders — representatives from different groups involved in the development of the campus and those it’s designed to benefit — decide on a final site for the campus and to begin preliminary design work on the campus itself.
The preliminary design work involves programming, which is the research and decision-making that will help the architects understand how neighborhood residents want the various parts of the campus to function and relate to one another.
The design team includes a lot of local expertise. Athens based Arcollab Architecture Collaborative, LLC and Koons Environmental Design, Inc. will do much of the building and site design work. Pratt Cassity, former director of the University of Georgia Center for Community Design, will help with engaging the community about the design criteria.
Jeff Bacon, an executive chef and cookbook author based in Winston Salem, NC and part of Catalyst Kitchens — an organization that supports nonprofits that provide pathways to jobs through a food service job training model–will assist with the design and set-up of the commercial kitchen that’s at the heart of the community campus project.
“It’s really exciting that this is finally happening,” said Heather Benham, ALT’s executive director.
What is a Community Campus?
A quick refresher: At a general level, the community campus idea is about a way to help people in low-income areas — often historically Black ones — preserve neighborhoods and important local institutions, celebrate local culture, increase access to healthy foods and give a space for local entrepreneurs to grow.
Based on extensive surveys and work with local residents, the West Broad Community Campus project was developed. This project will include: a new, permanent location for the well-loved West Broad Garden and Farmers Market, a fully-equipped commercial kitchen to support food-based entrepreneurs, and infrastructure for an array of youth and community programs.
Why West Broad?
But why locate a community campus in the West Broad area? One reason is that residents there got organized (more about that below). Another reason is need.
The West Broad neighborhood lies between West Broad St. on the north and Baxter Street on the south and is capped by Alps Rd. on the west and South Milledge on the east. The neighborhood is home to many of Athens’ historic Black institutions including churches, businesses and schools — and has remained politically, economically and culturally important in Athens to this day.
But there are problems. There’s a high poverty rate, and while not meeting the federal definition of a food desert, the neighborhood has a dearth of healthy food retail and other commercial investment, even as development pressures have been rising in the area. Nearly one in four West Broad households have no vehicle access, making the chain grocery store at the edge of the neighborhood relatively inaccessible. In sum, diminished food security, limited healthy food access, and a lack of resources mean that many low-income and other underserved neighborhood residents lack the ability to participate equitably in the local food system.
In addition, youth and families in the neighborhood have long identified the need for resources, programming, and jobs for young people.
“To finally have a place to learn…to have all the tools and resources in one place, will be awesome,” said Xavier Coates, a 20-year-old West Broad resident and crew leader for Athens Land Trust’s Young Urban Builders program who has been active in supporting this project.
Moving the idea of creating a community campus for the West Broad neighborhood closer to reality has taken a long time, and required the work of many partners.
A neighborhood desire to create a community commercial kitchen — the idea at the heart of the campus project — was discussed at least as early as 2005. In 2015, though, serious organizing for the project began when the West Broad Rising group was formed and started a grassroots campaign which helped secure funding from the Athens-Clarke County Government through a competitive grant process.
Other key partners include the Clarke County School District, the Athens Housing Authority, The Kendeda Fund and The Kresge Foundation — not to mention everyone who contributes to Athens Land Trust.
So, what’s next for the project? There are a number of steps that need to be completed before ground is broken: selecting the site, securing more capital funding and selecting contractors. We’ll keep you posted on progress.
On a gray morning in early October, neighborhood leaders, County officials, school board members, and stakeholders from across Athens gathered in downtown Athens at a workshop to discuss environmental leadership at the neighborhood level, and to explore the role it can play in the decisions and policies that affect Athens’ environmental health and sustainability.
Facilitated by the Partnership for Southern Equity (PSE), the workshop highlighted how structural racism has led to unequal outcomes for low-income, predominantly Black communities in Athens. Workshop participants from diverse backgrounds shared their perspectives, and through a multi-faceted view of history explored how local, collaborative efforts can promote a more equitable Athens.
The West Broad Community
Our experience with the West Broad Sustainability Project — an effort supported by ALT, neighborhood residents, PSE, and the Southeast Sustainability Directors Network (SSDN) — shows how effective environmental leadership can be at the neighborhood level. In that project, residents identified a range of environmental challenges and then successfully engaged local government to begin addressing them.
At the workshop, Shirley Tillman, a West Broad resident, reminded us that everyone values healthy environments, clean water, access to affordable, energy efficient homes and safe neighborhoods — but not everyone has access to the resources to realize these values.
What is environmental leadership?
Answering the question, “What is environmental leadership?” seems easy at first: it’s about land conservation, sustainable farming practices, and green building practices with a focus on energy and water efficiency. But, as we have worked with the West Broad community, the definition of environmental leadership has evolved to focus squarely on the leadership of our most impacted communities in determining their own environmental fate.
Keeping community history in mind
Hearing from residents like Shirley Tillman, whose family roots go back almost as far as Athens’ founding, we were reminded of our community’s living history. With memory of family members who lived through emancipation, Mrs. Tillman’s story was one of challenge and strife but also optimism and progress.
As she and others shared their stories, we were reminded that everyone values healthy environments, clean water, access to affordable, energy efficient homes and safe neighborhoods — but not everyone has access to the resources to realize these values.
Takeaways and next steps
We know that engaging residents up front and early about identifying specific neighborhood needs is critical to meeting community needs equitably. So, part of the discussion that morning was about how to build leadership among North Athens residents to take on a similar project in their own neighborhood.
A key takeaway was the importance of defining — and taking — the next steps. To that end, we’re working with county staff, West Broad neighborhood leaders and North Athens residents to build formal roles for North Athens grassroots leaders in expanding the project to their community. By centering the experiences of these citizens, we grow the base of environmental leadership and set the stage for healthy sustainable communities that serve all Athenians.
Tawana Mattox has a doctorate in educational leadership and is a member of the local board of education. Even so, she’s back in school to sharpen and deepen her advocacy skills for environmental justice at the community level. Dr. Mattox, who is ALT’s Director of Education & Empowerment, is part of the 2021 class of the Partnership for Southern Equity’s (PSE) Just Energy Academy (JEA). The class aims to develop advocacy skills so that participants can become more effective energy equity and climate justice leaders in their communities. PSE is an Atlanta based nonprofit that promotes racial equity and shared prosperity for communities in the South.
“Energy equity” and “climate justice” refer to the fact that low-income communities and communities of color are more likely to suffer from environmental hazards than are white and higher income communities. The terms also refer to efforts to improve conditions and fairly share benefits and burdens.
Mattox is already a local leader on these issues, one who is passionate about sharing her knowledge and developing other community leaders. Take ALT’s West Broad Sustainability Project, for example. Through this project, residents of the historically Black, gentrifying West Broad neighborhood identified environmental challenges such as flooding, poor household insulation, inefficient appliances, high energy costs, plumbing issues, and hazardous tree canopy.
The residents then engaged with local government to tackle these challenges—with tangible results: 15 homes are more energy efficient; three churches have audited energy usage and made repairs; 18 water-related projects have been completed; 20 hazardous trees have been pruned or removed; and 10 new native trees have been planted.
So why is Mattox “back in school” for environmental justice leadership?
“The work I’m already doing has propelled me to do more and learn more about the racial and socioeconomic inequalities that are prevalent [in Athens], about the history of these inequalities, and about energy policy and climate change,” says Mattox. “To do more, I need to be a scholar in this area.”
When Mattox graduates from the JEA later this year, Athens will not just gain one more better prepared leader, but someone who is passionate about inspiring others in our community to become leaders for energy equity and climate justice.
Athens Land Trust’s Community Education and Empowerment team closes the year out very excited about the support and outreach provided to many residents in our community. The West Broad Community Advisory Board members have gone beyond the call of duty to serve as a liaison for residents to share concerns about their homes, unhealthy trees in the neighborhood, dangerous traffic patterns, and any other issues they wanted to be addressed. The establishment of a phone tree where each of the advisory members were given 20 community people to “check on” during the height of COVID also increased resident engagement.
Early this year, the residents spent time thinking through a $4 million transportation grant. This project was the perfect setting to establish norms between city officials and community members. Talking through plans, listening to rationale on both sides, and working through plans truly boosted the level of confidence community members have with planning projects and working with city staff. In response to the pandemic, community meetings had to be swiftly moved from in person gatherings that included dinner to virtual meetings where participants could sign up for dinners to be delivered to them right before the meeting. Even though the format of the meetings changed, it did not hamper the progress residents made in advocating for their neighborhood. Athens-Clarke County District 3 Commissioner, Melissa Link attended most meetings, and provided individual support on issues and concerns shared during meetings.
Other topics presented during the monthly meetings included a series on “protecting our legacy”, which was facilitated by advisory board member Shirley Grant. These conversations focused on the need to prepare for the future through insurance, creating wills, and understanding what the probate process is after a family member dies. Community members were assisted in establishing clear plans for their homes and lands, many which have been in the community for several generations. Resources were presented around living in a food desert, and boxes of food were delivered to members in the community identified through advisory board members. Finally, a presentation from the Young Urban Farmers about the air and water quality testing they did in the neighborhood have rounded out these community meetings Ultimately, Athens Land Trust aims to replicate the work in the West Broad neighborhood to other areas in the community. A strong focus on outreach and staying close to the residents is what makes this program successful.
Athens Land Trust continues to coordinate regular tele-meetings with the West Broad Advisory Board to discuss and plan neighborhood initiatives that affect residents and strengthen relationships between residents and city partners. Post-COVID tele-meetings have included updates about energy retrofit projects in partnership with the Athens-Clarke County Sustainability Office, transportation ESPLOST updates, and opportunities for tree planting. There have also been presentations and information shared by the Transportation SPLOST Committee, Board of Elections, The US Census, and the School of Forestry at UGA.
The Advisory Board has also worked tirelessly to stay connected with residents through a phone tree project to call assigned residents and alert them to resources as soon as we are notified, including food distributions, COVID testing centers, and any concerns posed by our residents.
The next Advisory Board meeting is scheduled for Thursday, July 16th, and is the first meeting of a series entitled “Protecting our Legacy”. This series, which is led by Advisory Board members and partners, will discuss future and estate planning. There will be guest speakers discussing the importance of life insurance, setting up a will, and how to ensure property is passed on to the next generation.
The West Broad Advisory Board is supported by the Department of Education and Empowerment at Athens Land Trust. Tawana Mattox, who directs the department says, “The goal is to empower residents through education and awareness as a guide on the side, not a sage on the stage.